Anxiety begins and ends with cliché. Grandiose opener “Play by Play”, after washes of synthesizer, kicks off with Arthur Ashin doing a dynamo Prince impression: “I said, baby!” he cries, falsetto in full effect. The melancholy “World War” ties the album up with Ashin lamenting, “Not gonna be, no way / No way you’re gonna be my baby.” Of all the possible words an artist doing R&B — experimental or otherwise — could lean on, “baby” is definitely the default choice. It’s a tired-if-true term of affection, and its prime placement in pop music’s lexicon has ensured that even the most daring of artists will find a way to use it. Ashin, the driving force behind the Autre Ne Veut name, is now only on his second LP and, he can be pardoned for devolving to such basic word choice.
Yet what’s amazing is that for all of the components of Anxiety that ring as hollow or been-there-done-that, as a complete whole the record feels like something entirely new, something almost otherworldly in its genius. However, this record didn’t spring ex nihilo; it’s part of a large trend that’s been playing out over the past year and a half. 2012 was a year of major growth for R&B, with the now ubiquitous channel ORANGE rising to the top of the impressive pile in most critics’ minds. How to Dress Well, the Weeknd, and Jessie Ware all added equally significant contributions to the genre’s continual progression, setting a bar that’s hard to imagine anyone traversing. Not but two months into 2013, however, Autre Ne Veut has risen to the challenge, topping even Ocean and The Weeknd in creating a work of avant-R&B that’s forward-thinking and unlike anything else around. It’s such a formidable work that tagging it with the R&B name is to strip it of what makes it such a groundbreaking experience. Autre Ne Veut may comfortably work within the genre expectations of R&B, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t willing to throw in whatever the hell it wants into the mix. From the Katy Perry synths at the end of highlight “Play by Play” to the hair metal guitar solo in the middle of “Don’t Ever Look Back”, Ashin manages to grab all the bottles from the spice rack and upend them into the mix while somehow managing to produce a wholly engrossing and coherent album.
For that reason, some might find Anxiety to be just too much. There are a comically exaggerated amount of overdubs, synthesizer sounds, bells, whistles, and contraptions throughout, enough that listening to this record could be seen as a suffocating experience. A track like “A Lie”, which would be the low-key, sultry slow dance ballad on any other R&B album, here feels huge as it practically bears the thrust of a stadium-ready power ballad. Ashin’s vocals on the chorus catapult the song to stratospheric emotional heights that, in a way, make it feel like a lot more than just a ballad. The deep thump of the drum track is classic R&B, but every facet of the song’s production is treated to emphasize every minutia as Ashin makes sure that no note goes wasted. As a result of this, each song on Anxiety hits like a ton of bricks, even in lighter, poppier moments like “Promises”.
Compared to the music, however, the lyrics are so simple as to be pedestrian — if taken out of context. Ashin’s wisely chosen economy of words is the integral juxtaposition where Anxiety finds its balance. The staggering weight of the multi-layered arrangements here would not be benefited by a loquacious wordsmith, a fact he knows quite well. On lead single “Counting”, he sings, “I’m counting on the idea you’ll stay alive.” As a sentence it’s unremarkably structured, its phrasing fairly colloquial. But when matched with the rapid arpeggios, saxophone squeals, and booming bass drum hits that back the chorus, it suddenly sounds like the only meaningful thing in the world. This is a hard style to sell. From the second “Play By Play” explodes at the 2:45 mark, the album remains at a consistent climax. Even during the breather moments — “Don’t Ever Look Back” especially — the mood remains almost impossibly heightened. To Ashin’s credit, there are no forced smiles here, and while Anxiety sounds like one of those LPs that’d be impossible to re-create in a live setting, it’s so damn good as a record that it doesn’t really matter.
But better than anything else on the record, Ashin succeeds in defamiliarizing both pop and R&B. There are oddities strung throughout Anxiety that, at first listen, come off as nothing more than sonic trifles, amusing oddities that add a certain quirkiness to the proceedings. This is especially the case in the ode to being out-of body, “Ego Free Sex Free”. Right before the pre-chorus, a bizarre chipmunk voice jumps into the mix, with no immediate reason for its inclusion. But if one allows herself a few repeat listens, she will likely find the squeaks blending in with the rest of the music. Undoubtedly, this strange choice was a deliberate one on Ashin’s part; this little intrusion actually serves as a signpost, a means of forcing the listener to question the normalcy of basic verse/chorus structure. Autre Ne Veut is a project keenly tuned in to the pop hits of its day. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” could have been a Maroon 5 song in another, less fortunate life. With popular tropes in mind, Ashin toys around with basic assumptions about being a songwriter in the contemporary world. Why not include a chipmunk voice in an ethereal R&B track? Why not throw in some 808s & Heartbreak strings into a song that’s already thoroughly layered (“Don’t Ever Look Back”)? A lot goes on during Anxiety‘s 37-minute run time, but Ashin ensures that every single choice that went into the making of the LP is both deliberate and designed to provoke an engaged reaction out of his audience. This is pop music for people who like contemplating deeply about pop music.
The wooden frame on the sleeve art of Anxiety was not always empty. When the record was initially announced, Edvard Munch’s The Scream occupied the frame. Ashin stated in an interview that the painting was removed as a preventative measure. Interestingly enough, this disappearing act is a perfect representation of Anxiety‘s brilliance. T. S. Eliot once said that poems “are made up of other poems”, and the same goes for Ashin’s music. The veritable smorgasbord that forms this album is made up of a great many influences, but when all of them are put together, the result is a musical statement that’s innovative on every imaginable level. From The Scream comes a whole new work of art.